Exciting Poetry for Spring: 13 Highly Recommended Titles That Will Shock You Awake

Bashir, Samiya. Field Theories. Nightboat. Mar. 2017. 72p. ISBN 9781937658632. pap. $15.95. POETRY
At first, it may seem surprising that this energetically in-your-face collection references physics. But when Bashir (Gospel) notes of thermodynamics, “When Albert Murray said/ the second law adds up to/ the blues…/ he meant it//… more how my grandmother/ warned that men like women// with soft hands,” you see where she’s going. “Planck’s constant” denotes holding to others as we climb to get ahead; “Ground state,” a surge toward intimacy; and “We call it dark matter because it doesn’t interact with light,” America’s increasing xenophobia. Thus does Bashir sort out life’s demands, periodically grounding her exploration with references to African American legend John Henry and his wife, Polly Ann. ­VERDICT Interesting work; anyone who can combine woolly mammoths and the lyric “I’m gonna be your number one” in one poem knows her stuff.

Brown, Molly McCully. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Persea. Mar. 2017. 80p. ISBN 9780892554782. pap. $15.95. POETRY

Born with cerebral palsy, Brown grew up near the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, a singular set of circumstances that led to this striking first collection. The American eugenics movement originated at the colony, and Brown allowed herself to imagine the horror of being an inmate there by working through several fictional personae. That’s a potent enough set-up, but she doesn’t let it do her work for her, using effectively pinpointed language to tell her story. “You come back bone-tired and bruised,/ burned dead out and ready to be shut away,” she says of those sent out for day labor. And elsewhere: “Imagine you are/ an animal/ in your own throat.VERDICT Brown accomplishes her task admirably, and her work will appeal not just to ­poetry readers.

redstarCarr, Julie. Objects from a Borrowed Confession. Ahsahta. Jun. 2017. 160p. ISBN 9781934103685. pap. $18. POETRY

The gifted author of fluid yet edgy prose poems, Carr frequently treats sociopolitical issues (e.g., 100 Notes on Violence) but is here more personal and reflective. The volume opens with letters to an ex-lover’s ex-lover, whom the speaker claims to want to know better. She’s not chasing the past, which is “less than the light that falls toward my face. The future, however, is a red fox, running right past me.” Instead of accumulated stories, she sees us each as a “perpetual vanishing,” with the child’s death that opens the book’s second section shuddering her into the crucial, oft-skimmed present. Is confession a search for forgiveness or recognition? Actually, it seems more about attachment (you’re “made something rather than remaining (alone and) nothing.” VERDICT A rich meditation on self and others; for all smart readers.

chenchen.jpg42617redstarChen Chen. When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities. BOA. Apr. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9781942683339. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781942683346. POETRY

Visually vivid, erotic and intimate, at times bitingly funny, and refreshingly world-observant, Chen’s poems are steeped in the pain of being other as both Asian American and gay. He’s excellent at relating the confusion of childhood, recalling “Mom & Dad’s/ idiot faces, yelling at me” as they confront his sexuality and grappling with the consequences of his heritage. The standout poem “First Light” enumerates many different, often outré ways Chen envisions having come to this country, embodying the kind of imagination it takes to adapt to a new culture. Throughout, there’s ratcheted-up emotion yet an amazing command of language: “I carried in my snake mouth a boxful/ of carnal autobiographies” says the world. VERDICT An A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize winner; expansive work for expansive audiences.

Dunham, Rebecca. Cold Pastoral. Milkweed. Mar. 2017. 80p. ISBN 9781571314789. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781571319395. POETRY

T.S. Eliot Prize winner Dunham (The Miniature Room) frames her latest work in terms of three recent environmental disasters: the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Hurricane Katrina, and the lead-poisoned water of Flint, MI. Her images are relentless and indelible: “The rig boils black/ and then curls back upon itself”; “the lead—no/ imminent threat to public health—seeps and floats like a ghost.” But Dunham probes deeper, asking “What is, what reason, what is/ the good of man?” From chickens with clipped mouths and bound feet (“I thought/ I knew cages, knew boxes”) to a doll caught in a branch (“She could be dead. Easily// she could be your daughter”), Dunham shows us a natural world damaged by humans, who also damage themselves. VERDICT Engaged and ­engaging poetry.

Fagan, Kathy . Sycamore. Milkweed. Mar. 2017. 88p. ISBN 9781571314734. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781571319296. POETRY

Whether she is detailing an abandoned sledding hill (“the days like an unused billboard”), a sycamore tree (“I barely creak/ in wind that raised and hung me/ out to dry”), or a missed meteor (“a gold star shook/ lose from blue firmament”), National Poetry Series winner Fagan (The Raft) is a tremendous scene setter. And the scenes she sets often effectively disclose tamped-down sorrow at the end of a relationship. Not surprisingly, then, hers is a landscape of snow and ice (“a detonation—/ then white everywhere”), yet we frequently meet, as if striding, her noble sycamores, attentively and variably rendered and even given speech: “When I was dead, one of the whiter/ sycamores who live on the river said,/ Kathy, why didn’t you live in your body more?” VERDICT A quiet, beautifully articulated work whose mood does not wear.

redstarford, t’ai freedom. how to get over. Red Hen. May 2017. 110p. ISBN 9781597090384. pap. $17.95. POETRY

Winner of the Feminist Wire’s inaugural poetry contest, ford debuts with a fiery collection that uses language both evocatively rich and colloquially sharp and sly to capture the African American experience. Poems titled “past life portrait” range from the Negroes Burying Ground in Lower Manhattan, circa 1787, to the imagined thoughts of Rodney King, while the ambitious and deftly handled “black, brown, and beige (a movement in three parts)” echoes Duke Ellington’s symphony of the same name. (“Movement Three: Beige” says “this/ skin a shade/ and a half past alright”). Another poem series, “how to get over,” offers tough-love advice: “unload the artillery/ of switch, shrapnel their eyes with/ bitch and fierce, drop dead// gorgeous.” VERDICT Drop-dead gorgeous indeed.

Hood, Charles. Partially Excited States. Univ. of Wisconsin. Mar. 2017. 72p. ISBN 9780299311643. pap. $14.95. POETRY

“The Wand Chooses the Wizard” proclaims the title of Hood’s opening poem, which goes on inventively to observe how “the patsy chooses the mark/ and the floozy chooses the lug” all the way down to the reader’s challenge: “this poem has chosen you.” Clearly, Hood knows his pop culture, but the depth of historical and scientific knowledge throughout makes for lush if sometimes off-kilter reading. Topics range from Jasper Johns’s thieving assistant to the street trees of San Francisco to an Upper Paleolithic cave. VERDICT “Sunrise on Mercury” opens, “A woman in a bar once told me I looked like matches waiting for an arsonist. A man said, “If you could lick my heart,/ it would poison you,” which sums up exactly Hood’s darkly offbeat and witty verse. A Felix Pollak Poetry Prize winner.

whereas.jpg42617redstarLong Soldier, Layli. Whereas. Graywolf. Mar. 2017. 114p. ISBN 9781555977672. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781555979614. POETRY

Whiting Award winner Long Soldier, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, uses urgent, muscular, fiercely vibrant language to explore the very concept of language: how tightly it is bound up with culture, how it shifts and defines the speaker. The early poems set the scene: a man is dragged through the dirt, “His skull, glisten of star/ to bone; a square poem signals the speaker’s entrapment; “Wings that do not close” bespeak aspiration. Soon the speaker is exploring the relation of thought to language, which must be used well (“Here, the sentence will be respected”), even as she comments reflexively on historical and ongoing abuses. The tour-de-force title section confronts the U.S. government’s meager apology for such abuses in 2009. VERDICT Challenging and worth it.

McCrae, Shane. In the Language of My Captor. Wesleyan Univ. Feb. 2017. 108p. ISBN 9780819577115. $22.75; ebk. ISBN 9780819577139. POETRY

In his award-winning The Animal Too Big To Kill, McCrae explored the conundrum of being a half-black man raised by white supremacists, and his new work again confronts the crosscurrents of race and history. Whether he’s presenting a black man exhibited behind bars who’s wiser than the desperate white zookeeper, a mulatto boy adopted by Jefferson Davis, or acclaimed performer Banjo Yes, who reflects angrily on how white culture shaped his life and career, McCrae delivers sharp scenarios and cool, forthright language. The core concern is freedom: says Banjo, “you think it’s/ making decisions other folks won’t like/ Listen I do a thing to piss a white man off// I’m bound to that man’s will.” VERDICT Unsettling and approachable for a wide audience.

redstarPico, Tommy. Nature Poem. Tin House. May 2017. 128p. ISBN 9781941040638. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040645. POETRY

The title of this cheeky, daring, joyously caustic work is ironic, for as the opening poem states, “I can’t write a nature poem/ bc it’s fodder for the noble savage/ narrative.” Young, queer, and Native American, Pico’s alter ego, Teebs, refuses to follow the expected path, declares “I only fuck with the city,” and worries about getting a nose ring at 30. He’s also frankly angry about the white settlers’ abuses (“Thank god for colonialist plundering, right? At least some of these/ artifacts remain intact behind glass”) and humanity’s larger crimes and presumptions (“Dragonflies experience a kind of quantum time,// …and I’m supposed to believe we’re such miracles?”). VERDICT A 2013 Lambda ­Literary fellow, Pico concludes, “It’s hard to be anything// but a pessimist,” but we can be deeply optimistic about his work.

Sanabria, Ruth Irupé. Beasts Behave in Foreign Lands. Red Hen. Apr. 2017. 84p. ISBN 9781597097635. $16.95. POETRY

Winner of the 2014 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Poetry Prize, this second collection was inspired by the author’s testifying in trials nearly four decades after her parents were imprisoned and tortured during Argentina’s military dictatorship. What’s surprising, then, is that the language is not brutally realistic, with the beginning lines nearly surreal in their portrayal of an Admitting Chair scolding a “limp-winged” snitch working through the Throat of Silence and stalked by the Beast of Memory. But then such heightened imagery may be the best way to deal with unbelievable horror. This evocative collection unfolds as both cultural celebration and chronicle of survival: “Draw sun, draw star,/ still bones are cast as dust,” says Sanabria, and “out of our inevitable estrangement/ I’d make us up again and again.” VERDICT Startling and successful; for most readers.

Tuffaha, Lena Khalaf. Water & Salt. Red Hen. Apr. 2017. 96p. ISBN 9781597090292. pap. $17.95. POETRY

Of Palestinian, Jordanian, and Syrian heritage, Tuffaha offers a beautifully crafted debut that uses clear, observant language to explore the immigrant experience and the burdens of ongoing war. As she explains, “We travel back not to// because even now/ after we’ve lived longer// here than anywhere else// we still think of this place// as new.” Writing crucially helps her negotiate that newness—“The hollows of write/ are lined with bookshelves/ and speak spirals off my tongue into stories”—as it helps her negotiate reentry into a brutalized homeland. Even as she notes the fragrance of almond blossoms, she observes: “Today again. Smoke-charred throats/ suffocating.” VERDICT Taking her from Beirut, Baghdad, Afghanistan, and a once-imprisoned Palestinian friend “whose eyes are like two pools of olive/ oil about to ignite,” Tuffaha’s journey is both immediately relevant and timelessly poetic.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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